Zero Dark Thirty, or, How Not to Make a Movie About Torture

By Shawn

Head Torturer Guy: Hey, Jessica Chastain, do you know what’s totally a great way to get information from detainees? Torture.

Jessica Chastain: That’s totally true. But let’s not come out and say that torture actually produced useful intelligence that led to bin Laden’s capture, because that’s a problematic claim that’s been debunked repeatedly. Instead, let’s just strongly imply it.

Head Torturer Guy: That sounds good. Also, it’d be great if we could spend a few scenes developing our characters in ways that humanized us, without any corresponding attempt to challenge our audience by asking them to recognize the humanity of the detainees we’re torturing.

Jessica Chastain: You know what would help with that? Lots of montages of brown people looking around as though they might be up to something, with ominous brown people music playing.

Head Torture Guy: Perfect. Let’s just grab the first thing we find on YouTube:

Jessica Chastain: That’ll do, pig. Let’s also have a scene in which Obama’s on TV condemning the CIA’s torture program, but let’s not engage that in any way beyond rolling our eyes.

Head Torture Guy: That sounds like a truly terrific and lazy way to deal with a troubling episode in our nation’s history.

Jessica Chastain: Ready?

Head Torture Guy: Ready.

Obama: (on TV) I think that probably torture is bad and hurts America’s image. Not that I’m going to punish or hold anyone accountable for it—that might make David Brooks sad.

Jessica Chastain: (eye roll) Obama, gosh!

Head Torture Guy: (eye roll) Yeah, pssh, Obama!

Jessica Chastain: The best part about how we just implicitly criticized Obama is how it positions the national security debate as though it were between liberals who aren’t willing to do what it takes to make the nation safe and conservatives who are. But in fact, people who are genuinely concerned about civil liberties and want to place limits on the way the national security establishment deals with terrorism have almost no influence on anything the government does, and Obama and the Democrats seem to have no problem assassinating American citizens abroad, violating the territorial sovereignty of other states to capture or kill high value targets, and allowing the CIA to operate a clandestine drone program with minimal oversight.

Head Torture Guy: Yeah. Pssh, Obama! So weak on national security!

Jessica Chastain: Pssh!

Head Torture Guy: So far I think we’ve got a pretty good movie going here. There’s just one thing I’m worried about. What happens if people who know something about what actually happened criticize our account?

Jessica Chastain: Oh, that’s no problem at all. We’ll just say it’s fictionalized.

Head Torture Guy: But if it’s fiction, won’t audiences who want to know what really took place be less interested in seeing it?

Jessica Chastain: That’s why we’ll say it’s a fictionalized account “based on real events,” and then provide the audience with no information about what actually occurred versus what we made up.

Head Torture Guy: That sounds like a perfect way of handling our obligation to deal with this subject matter responsibly.

Jessica Chastain: Yep! So, just to review—we’ve successfully created a fake account of a real event with minimal character development that depicts torture without providing any analysis; implies that it led to the capture of bin Laden; and barely even bothers to bring up in passing the argument that torture is immoral and outrageous, and that whatever modest intelligence gains it might have produced aren’t nearly enough to justify the harm it inflicted on the bodies and minds of the victims, the tremendous cost to this nation’s reputation, and the damage it’s done to our collective moral compass. In fact, practically no one in this movie will make any arguments at all or engage in any critical reflection to speak of.  And when people call us on that, we can just say that all we wanted to do was depict what actually happened, even though that’s not what we did.

Head Torture Guy: Not too shabby! I just have one last concern. Won’t people be put off unless there’s at least a token acknowledgement of the moral ambiguity of the events that transpired in the film, and won’t that require us to critically reflect on what took place in some way?

Jessica Chastain: Don’t worry about that. We’ll just show a scene of me getting into a plane and crying at the end.

Head Torture Guy: What will that mean?

Jessica Chastain: Nothing at all. Or everything. Who knows?

Head Torture Guy: Wow. That’s so profound.

Jessica Chastain: Absolutely. Also:

Head Torture Guy: My gosh, brown people music is ominous! It’s like, what are they planning?

Jessica Chastain: Well, there’s only one horrible way to find out! Think about that, opponents of torture.

Head Torture Guy: Anti-torture arguments, pssh!

Jessica Chastain: Psssh!

Head Torture Guy: Pssssssh!

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